Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life


A friend recently confided his interest in Wendell Berry’s works and inquired about a good place to start. A few years ago another friend gave me Jayber Crow for my birthday and I have been a fond reader of the stories on the Port William Membership ever since.  But what makes this fictional town gain a wide readership across continents though you would not find Berry’s name among the topsellers?

Wendell Berry himself chose not to pursue his writing career in the hustle and bustle of New York, but farming his way through the seasons in Kentucky, observing, resting and discovering the importance of place, connectedness and the quest for a sustainable life.
In his collection of novels, shorts stories, poems and essays Berry explores what it means to belong to a place and to each other.  Away from the abstract and embracing the given of a particular people in a particular place Berry speaks into the malaise of violence and detachment we often find ourselves in. His return to an agrarian life is not mere nostalgia for a world that is no more, but an active participation in the healing of that very malaise.

Not everybody who spends time in his company will walk the same path of putting the hand behind the plough. In Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens combine their reading of Berry and understanding of his vision for the good life and help us navigate the terrain Berry invites us into. What emerges is a patchwork of themes waiting to be harvested as the farmer glances his eye over the ground he sweats on, knows very well and can be proud of when it bears fruit so many mouths can be fed again.

wp-1459501704727.jpegA necessary voice

The book opens with the question what in the world is there to learn from a farmer, past seventy ploughing on a hillside behind some horses tucked away in rural Kentucky? But labelling irrelevant for our day and age would be a mistake as Berry’s own conscious choice to be a farmer serves as an antidote to abstract global problems and reevaluates what it means to live in a particular place with a particular people. From a thorough reading of Berry’s impressive opus emerges a pattern of a quilt. Bonzo and Stevens guide us through Berry’s landscape to unfold the vision of Berry and see how his is a necessary voice to the church and academic education as well.

As we unfold the breath of Berry’s vision and the wide range of thinkers who have been drawn to it, we should begin by saying that it is attractive and relevant in no small measure because he speaks bluntly to the deep troubles of our age. The problems of our culture – disease, dislocation, outrageous hubris – are so massive that they present a formidable roadblock to any substantive discourse about true health. The broader context of our lives is a violence and meaninglessness that permeated the twentieth century and bleeds into the twenty-first … there is an impulse to participate in the global reach of destructive technologies. There is certainly no place untouchable, and a few places as yet untouched by the possibilities of violence and repression.

In this loss of direction Berry towers together with other culture critics. Through a renarration and active peacemaking Berry addresses the above. This is what he calls “practicing the resurrection.” Bonzo and Stevens place Berry among other truth tellers as Pope John Paul II, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder and Jacques Derrida, new agrarians and environmentalists to underscore his vision way before it was even fashionable to talk the sustainability lingo.
What is fascinating is that Berry’s creational vision is not just a critique on the damage done by technological advancement, but the virtues  and habits that he holds up as healthiest and most affirming can best be practiced in a deliberate, interconnected and communal local existence as the healthiest mode for human beings.

But to see what is healthy requires slowing down, discerning disease from health, allowing space for hope and the suggestion of healing.
“When the virtues are rightly practiced within the Great Economy, we do not call them virtues, we call them good farming, good forestry, good carpentry, good husbandry, good weaving and good sewing, good homemaking, good parenthood, good neighbourhood, and so on.” The way towards this healing is again the local, the finite, the particular. In economic terms membership is preferred over competitiveness.
“In Berry’s fiction, the “qualifications” for membership in the community seem to have much to do with taking care of one’s own place and caring about the well-being of other people’s places.

Next Bonzo and Stevens show how this vision of health-disease-healing resonates deeply with the biblical narrative of creation-fall-redemption introducing the language of structure and direction into the interpretative framework.

Practicing resurrection this becomes the link of past, present, and future, in a lived and embodied hopefulness, anchored in narratives of the past, partaking of future hope, and living in the goodness of an ordered “here-and-now” present.

The cultivation of community from the ground up

Knowing one’s place with a particular people in a given place requires humble admitting of boundaries, finitude, just as seasons mark the rhythm of the farm.
“If we start with finitude, that boundary of human knowing and acting, then we perhaps can trace a set of creational boundaries that, when acknowledged with gratitude, allow for the construction of communities of healing. Without gratitude, one can see finitude only as oppressive, something to be trespassed, overthrown, or at least resented. But Berry reveals the life-giving nature of finitude.” That is expressed in terms of wildness and cultivating, work and sabbath, the soil and the land, husbandry and our relation to the food we eat. Taking this from the ground up, Berry sees sharp parallels between care/cultivation of the land and our bodies. Both need to be cultivated should we expect fruit. Overpowering is a direct danger when cultivating as uncontrolled feeding of appetites can be disastrous.

And it is clear to anyone who looks carefully at any crowd that we are wasting our bodies exactly as we are wasting our land. Our bodies are fat, weak, joyless, sickly, ugly, the virtual prey of the manufacturers of medicine and cosmetics. Our bodies have become marginal; they are growing useless like our ‘marginal’ land because we have less and less use for them.

Our bodies, the limits we find ourselves in are central and the medium in which we can find our way on the world through relationships with the earth and with others.

Contempt for the body is invariably manifested in contempt for other bodies – the bodies of slaves, laborers, women, animals, plants, the earth itself. Relationships with all other creatures become competitive and exploitive rather than collaborative and convivial. The wold is seen and dealt with, not as an ecological community, but as a stock exchange, the ethics of which are based on the tragically misnamed ‘law of the jungle’. This ‘jungle’ law is a basic fallacy of modern culture.

Respecting our bodies is not a flight from sexuality for Berry: “Rather  than fleeing from the body’s instincts, we need to properly place them. We needn’t shut the nightclub, but we need to reinvent within its wall a context akin to the communal dances of, say, Jane Austin’s novels, where sexual energy can find a place in rituals of communal celebration and courtship. Sexual instinct must be cultivated, ordered and allowed to bring life.” This cultivation takes place in marriage and household and to extend that as a place of welcome, a place at the table. Making a home where respect, mutuality and the gifting to each other find a proper place.

We all know that households are not utopias, nor are the local communities that they ideally help to build. Still, when a household is based upon proper ordering of sexuality and of work, its members are able to reach out and interact in community, as order begets order. Just as we order and nurture soil to grow plants, so also we must order and nurture growth of human relationships. But home economics is not quite Berry’s end. Instead, he points to the community, local in scope, both fragile and enduring, as the natural boundary whereby one is still in a place.

Berry’s fiction is full of people that are welcomed into the community or that drift away from membership through abuse of land and relationships. Whether it is the stranger among (people from outside that have come and live among you), or the ones that are just passing through taking what they want and leaving without warning or regret, and the prodigals (son and daughters of people living in Port William that not necessarily chose the sam path as their parents). An open hand and heart are extended to every category with all the risks involved. Because hospitality has room for the wounded and for being wounded. “The finite community thus shows an almost infinite array of ways to love, to forgive, to keep, and even to give away. There truly is room for everyone, with the only caveat being that love must be accepted as given; it must be received as gift.”

Hopeful vision

In the two last chapters Bonzo and Stevens explore how Berry’s vision can be embodied in the church and in places of education. What does it mean for a church to be committed to its locale and the people that live there? How can churches lead the way to healing as envisaged? With tentative explorations and some cautions, this leading the way could become possible by attentive listening to the community and evaluating the livability and sustainability of a church’s neighborhood.

Berry’s critique on institutions of higher education is again the disconnect from the communities they are located in. “Education for the sake of creating producers and consumers for the global economy is a very different end from producing members for a healthy local community.” To what end are all the skills acquiring and what are people for or deeply connected Berryian questions. Bonzo and Stevens recount their attempts in creating hospitable learning environments that will help students to be homemakers in the places where they will live and work.

With that hopeful tone, grounded in the goodness of creation, we are sent out to “learn the hard way, to put our hands to the plow and thus to figure out how hard it is to keep a straight path down the long, long row we are facing in our culture.”

Bothered with similar questions on what the most sustainable form of life is for times as these Bonzo and Stevens find in Berry a discerning, prophetic and applaudible voice that speaks deeply into the malaise we find ourselves in. Not only stitch they together a beautiful quilt highlighting the many themes that emerge from reading Berry, which serves as a comprehensive introduction to Berry by bringing the different themes together. But they also enhance the conversation for those who have been reading Berry themselves and become an enjoyable conversation partner that you want to turn too when you have listened for yourself to this necessary voice.

Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide, J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2008.